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small ivory figure of a woman wearing a string skirt

History of clothing: Venus of Lespugue, ca. 25000 BC, now in the Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, wearing a grass or string skirt

The first clothing

Clothing was very expensive in the ancient and medieval world, because without engine-powered machines it was very hard to make. So most people had very few changes of clothing. Many people owned only the clothes they were wearing.

Leather, fur, and grass skirts

Many children had no clothes at all, and just went naked. In the Stone Age most clothing was made of leather or fur. Because leather and fur were expensive, for everyday clothes in warm weather many people wore skirts of woven grasses or string, or went bare.

Bronze Age: spinning and weaving

By the Bronze Age people had learned to spin yarn on a spindle and to weave cloth out of the yarn on looms. Although many clothes, especially coats, were still made out of leather or fur, most clothes were made out of wool (from sheep) or linen (from the flax plant), hemp or cotton. Some rich people wore silk. Because cloth was so hard to make, most people didn’t cut cloth to make clothing. They just wrapped big pieces of cloth around themselves. Or they wove cloth in the shape of a tunic.

A little stone statue of a woman wearing a sari: history of clothing

History of clothing: Indian woman from the Mauryan period (ca. 200 BC)

Women and slavery

Almost as soon there was spinning and weaving, rich people started to capture and enslave hundreds of women to work in big factories making very beautiful fine clothing that the rich people could sell or give away to their supporters. Egyptian pharaohs made women prisoners spin very fine linen; Sumerian and Mycenaean kings made women prisoners spin fine wool; Chinese emperors made women prisoners spin beautiful silks. In India, women spun cotton into saris. The same thing happened in the Americas, where women also spun and wove cotton and agave.

New inventions: knitting and spinning wheels

These rich people were always looking for ways to make cloth cheaper and better, so inventors were always working on this problem. About 1000 BC, they were using nalbinding to make hats and socks. By 200 BC Chinese inventors were making steel sewing needles that the women used to make fancy embroidery and sew pleats and ruffles on expensive clothing. The invention of knitting, about 400 AD, let the factories make socks and hats much faster than nalbinding. In the Middle Ages, about 1200 AD, Chinese or Iranian inventors made the spinning wheel, which made spinning yarn go about four times as fast. But these new methods were mainly for expensive clothes. Regular people still had only one or two outfits.

Late Roman sock knitted in colorful stripes with a separate big toe

History of clothing: Egyptian knitted sock (400s AD, now in Leicester)

Spinning Jenny

By this time, Europe was getting rich from selling wool cloth, and the next clothing inventions came from Europe. One was the knitting machine, in 1589 AD, and the next was the spinning jenny, in the 1700s. In Europe, both men and women started to wear more clothing, – aprons, caps, underwear, and knitted stockings. In the Americas, some Native people started to wear European-style clothing too.

Making clothing got cheaper as people got richer, and by the 1700s many people were wearing clothing made in factories. Instead of enslaved prisoners, now the rich people hired free women and children to work in textile factories, but for very low wages. They forced people in India to grow cotton to spin in their factories.

black people in a field picking cotton

History of clothing: Enslaved African-Americans picking cotton

Cotton gin and the history of clothing

But the big revolution in clothing came at the very end of the 1700s, when Eli Whitney (and other people working about the same time) invented the cotton gin to get the seeds out of North American short-staple cotton. White men started enormous Southern plantations to grow huge amounts of cotton, forcing enslaved African-Americans to do the work for them. They sent most of the cotton on ships to England, where poor women and children ran factory machines spinning and weaving the cotton into cloth. For the first time, clothing became cheap enough that most people could change their clothes regularly. People started to wear more underwear. They started to put sheets on their beds and curtains at their windows. First men started to wear pants, then women did too.

Buy fair trade dresses, made by people getting good wages

Cheap cotton and polyester

Even after the Civil War, most black people kept on picking cotton. But in the 1950s, scientists invented machines to pick cotton instead. Many black people lost their work, but cotton got even cheaper, and people started to throw away good shirts and dresses just because they were tired of them, or they had gone out of fashion. Scientists also invented polyester cloth made out of oil. Even today, most of the clothing you wear is made of cotton, grown in the southern United States, or of polyester, and spun and woven and sewn in Cambodia or Vietnam or any other poor country, where women and children will work for very low wages.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about the history of clothing? Let us know in the comments!

Learn by doing: check the labels and see what your clothing is made of and where it was made
North American clothing after 1500 AD

Bibliography and further reading about ancient and medieval clothing:

Eyewitness: Costume, by L. Rowland-Warne (2000). For kids, but mainly European clothing, from earliest times to modern.

Dazzling Disguises and Clever Costumes, by Angela Wilkes (2001). Make your own costumes – here are directions written for kids!

Clothing: A Pictorial History of the Past One Thousand Years, by Sue and John Hamilton (2000). Includes Africa and Asia, but only as far back as 1000 AD. Easy reading.

World Textiles: A Concise History, by Mary Schoeser (2003). For adults.

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